Western College Hockey (thanks to Chris Dilks for popularizing the term) is dying because it has failed to recognize and embrace its own lot in life. In what world does a sport, already extremely regional, think it’s a good idea to take two perfectly good conferences, throw them in a blender and see what happens?
College hockey used to be great, because every fan felt like they had a stake in things. As a Minnesota State guy, I hated St. Cloud State. Hated UMD. Hated NoDak.
— Dan Myers, NHL.com writer for the Minnesota Wild, “College hockey is dying, but the fix is simple”.
Myers’s point — and it’s worth reading the full piece, I assure you — is that the changes out west have harmed the sport because a lot of great rivalries are dead. The key clause in the quote I pulled from his piece is this: “As a Minnesota State guy”.
As a UAH guy, I have a different perspective. For one, my school wasn’t part of the old WCHA or the CCHA (though we tried to get into both). As I noted in a post on the USCHO message board last night,
Through 1.5 seasons in the league, UAH has played Bemidji 74 times, Mankato 47, the Alaska schools 21 each (thanks to the early ’90s independent days), BG 14 times, Ferris 11 (four of those in 10-11), Lake and Northern eight times, and Tech just four times. Most UAH fans understand the rivalry with the Beavs, but you have to go back to the D-II days for fans to get the Mankato and Alaska rivalries.
I mean, really: the four teams we’ve played the most are rivalries from 15-20 years ago. BG is pretty close and has been willing to schedule us in non-conference games. The Michigan schools have mainly played us in the last six years, and Tech has only in WCHA play. The only real rival that we have is Bemidji — just revisit the #hateweek shenanigans from last year — and we went two years without playing them thanks to the Beavs’ busy WCHA schedule (soaking up eight games a year that had been free during the CHA) and UAH living the independent thug life.
But I think that the Chargers’ history in the CHA is instructive. College Hockey America was, well, a collection of teams wanting to play Division I hockey in a quasi-Western league. Let’s look at the membership of the league:
- Air Force. Prior to the CHA, the Falcons played 31 years as an independent. Air Force saw the writing on the wall that the landscape wouldn’t support independents (no joke). The Falcons had just one season above .500, going 19-18-2 in their first season in the league. The Zoomies would head to Atlantic Hockey for the 2006-07 season, the real linchpin for the failure of the league.
- UAH. As we’ve talked about before, UAH started in Division II, moved to Division I, moved back down, and moved back up after the NCAA stopped sponsoring a D-II championship, an event that seems to hold the Chargers as the last D-II titlist ever.* You could say that our Chargers were first in and last out, as they were one of just three founding teams to stay with the league for its entirety, and they didn’t find a new home prior to dissolution.
- Army. The Cadets bailed after one season for the MAAC, which would become Atlantic Hockey. Prior to that, West Point had two stints in the ECAC (1962-1973 and 1984-1991) and otherwise played as an independent.
- Bemidji State. Like UAH, the Beavers had been a D-II power before getting swept up in the push to D-I in 1998. BSU played as low as NAIA and as high as D-I, starting at the top before jumping to the bottom in the NCHA, which is now a D-III league.
- Findlay. Oh, what a story. The Oilers were a from-scratch program, built by Craig Ford to move up quickly in the standings, but they never escaped the bottom half of the league before the program was axed after new University leadership came in. This after the MAAC forbade all of its member schools from playing the Oilers in 2000-01, as the new team was still a provision D-I member. That was dirty pool, y’all.
- Niagara. The Purple Eagles played their first two seasons (1996-98) as independents and joined the CHA in its inaugural campaign, presumably because the league offered the full 18 scholarships, allowing the men from Monteagle Ridge to fire on all cylinders. The Purps were the league’s first ever NCAA tournament team, going a stunning 30-8-4 on the season. After Greg Gardner kicked the net off of its moorings to invalidate a would-be-tying UAH goal late in the first CHA championship, Blaise McDonald’s squad would go on to knock off UNH in the first round of the NCAA tournament. I mean, go look at the firepower on that team: six 15-goal scorers, three 20-goal scorers, and a senior goaltender who’d been the plow horse all season. Niagara would leave for Atlantic Hockey when the lights went out, having tried to get into the ECAC (and probably Hockey East) for most of their time in the league.
- Robert Morris. Now, depending on who you talk to, the upstart Colonials were either set to play 2004-05 as an independent or as a member of Atlantic Hockey. Also depending on who you talk to, the Colonials either chose to play in the CHA given an open spot with Findlay’s departure or were shoved there “for the good of the sport”.
- Wayne State. The Warriors were an upstart program that, from the outset, was trying to get into the CCHA with the other Michigan schools (less Tech). They built momentum over four years, finally reaching full form in 2002-03 with a team that CHA old-heads still talk about. Sadly, the team came to an end in 2007-08 after a long series of failed promises and tough “home” venues to draw fans into. #TartarsForever
Now you can say this: “Geof, if your frustration with Dan Myers’s piece is that he uses the concept that new rivalries hadn’t shown any glimpses of formation, why are you listing the CHA’s rivalries?” I write this to expose the following:
- Air Force and Army had an extant relationship because of their status as national service academies. Being in a league together made sense, although not enough for West Point officials, who probably sought a conference with lower travel costs and a shorter scholarship outlay (limiting the pool of talent) over one with a national reach (Colorado to the NYC area) that had just one league city near a major metropolitan airport (WSU; RMU wouldn’t join for four more years). It seems that Air Force, sensing the end of the CHA, chose Atlantic Hockey for all the same reasons that the Black Knights did, with the added benefit of joining Army.
- UAH and BSU had their extant rivalry. Until things picked up, it was the driver of the league.
- Findlay and Wayne State were cut from whole cloth; Robert Morris would join in the same condition.
- Niagara had only two years under its belt as an independent.
The point is this: there were next-to-no rivalries in the original CHA. Like the new WCHA, it was mainly a group of teams thrown together in a general arrangement “for the best”. The WCHA has extant rivalries: 1) Tech, Bemidji, Mankato, and Anchorage were all WCHA members; 2) BG, Northern, Ferris, Alaska, and Lake State were all CCHA members; 3) Fairbanks and Anchorage hate each other; 4) Tech and Northern hate each other; 5) Bemidji and Huntsville hate each other. That’s a lot more than the CHA started with.
But the CHA built rivalries over time. Plenty of people hated UAH for all the penalties they took (and those that they should’ve). Bemidji’s trap was loathed. Everyone hated playing at Air Force because of the altitude and the relentless nature of Frank’s teams. Dave Burkholder’s shrill whistling drove everyone crazy. Findlay … well, I still hate Mark Bastl for dropping four goals on us that one game at home (he had just one other marker all season). Robert Morris and Wayne State played from the same playbook: build from the net out, check hard, and apply pressure. I once rode the Warriors’ David Guerrera so hard that he flipped me off as he walked off the ice on Friday night (bro, don’t let me know that I got into your head!). And Bemidji … I loved seeing them lose 26 games in Bob Peters’s last year. Also, Says Phrakonkham … say no more.
Just as Dan can ply you with his wife’s disappointment with the new league being “boring”, I say, “Give it time.” The league has played just nine months in this configuration, and with the big names gone and the leagues mashed together, the rivalries aren’t ready just yet. And to quote parch on USCHO:
Anyone post here who experienced the great rift that formed when Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, and Notre Dame left to join the CCHA? Was there anywhere near the vocal outcry of losing those schools? What about the ECAC/Hockey East split that took place? Were fans in the ECAC just as hurt?
I think the B1G and NCHC were such a dramatic shift that it over shadows the WCHA/CCHA alignment and the ECAC/HE split. So many moving pieces changed at once that hockey fans weren’t able to take it all in. Considering B1G fans miss seeing the other schools, fans in both the NCHC and WCHA have their gripes. It’s just a lot to take in.
If things ride stay how they are now, this will be normal to the current fans of these schools, and us that remember the old ways can wax poetic about it like older fans reminisce about the “Old Old WCHA” or 17 team ECAC.
Barring injuries, Tech and Mankato look like locks for the NCAAs, and BG definitely looks to make that a trio if they can keep their stride. If they fall, Ferris could ride Motte or Northern with Dahlströhm to make the NCAAs in the “low scoring, good D, terrific goaltending” formula that works from time to time (see UAH, 2006-07 and 2009-10, although both the Bulldogs and Wildcats are better squads than those Charger editions). Rivalries are going to be built in March, and we’ve only had the one March.
As for Myers’s actual prescription for realignment, it seems fair, generally restoring the old WCHA, lumping in ASU, and booting Tech. The new CCHA would have the usual non-BTHC suspects plus UAH and an Atlantic Hockey team of choice (hopefully RMU, because they don’t suck). Would we at UAH like that from a travel perspective? Sure! But it’s a league split that definitely favors the WCHA side of things, having more marquee college hockey names than the CCHA, which also has to deal with travel to both Fairbanks and Huntsville.
The real potential here is for some kind of interlock between the two leagues. If non-BTHC western college hockey is going to thrive, it’s going to have to be because we pummel the hell out of each other every weekend. More on that someday, perhaps.
* Actually, the last Division II championship was won by St. Michael’s College, which defeated New Hampshire College in 1999, the year after UAH and Bemidji State declared they were leaving for Division I. — Michael Napier